Albums of 2019 (#2): Big Thief – Two Hands
What's most surprising about Big Thief's second album of 2019, Two Hands, is its generosity in allowing the listener to take stock of themselves
The night before Two Hands was released, the four members of Big Thief played The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. They don't set up like other bands; they place their bodies at the points of a skewed rhombus. At any one moment, Adrianne Lenker could lift her shut eyes and look for those of one of her bandmates, as they could hers, as they all did at one point or other. If you ignore the performance – impossible as one of the most urgent TV appearances by any band in quite some time – it is four minutes of stolen glances. So close they could almost touch, if they do not feel they belong in some shiny New York City studio, they do find that belonging in each other.
This year, many who have become smitten with Big Thief will have found that belonging too: in Lenker’s direct lyrics; in a band so locked into step with each other, their album covers depict the individual members piled up, their limbs intertwined, into a whole; in four people making music that is emotionally resonant and deeply felt, with guitars no less.
The song they performed that night was Not, the highlight of Two Hands, which is, unfathomably, the second near-perfect album Big Thief released this year. And it is almost impossible to talk about Two Hands without reference to its celestial, alien sister U.F.O.F. – locked together, they too make up a whole. Where U.F.O.F. is dreamy, stargazing folk, Two Hands is earthbound and soiled, fascinated with the corporeal, music made with dirt under the fingernails, a surgeon’s hands plunged deep amongst the vital organs of the body.
Not is like a plughole in the record’s middle: the dirty water, spit, blood, loose hair, dead skin and bitten fingernails clumping in one dripping cluster of a rock song. Lenker’s screaming voice becomes hoarse from repeating the choral words, 'It’s not the room, not beginning, not the crowd, not winning, not the planet, not spinning', after a plea in vain to describe the strength of a feeling for which no sufficient words or metaphors or natural wonders exist ('Not the meat of your thigh, nor your spine tattoo, nor your shimmery eye'), and all of it finally descending into a long crashing solo.
Any one of the ten songs on Two Hands could be pored over; every fleeting moment of sonic bliss, every word. It asks the listener to consider what is and is not there, what we should and should not have, who we could and cannot be. On Forgotten Eyes, Lenker states plainly: 'Everybody needs a home and deserves protection'. As on previous works, it finds her centring subjects like homelessness and domestic violence, things from the here and now, things that are frighteningly real.
That’s not to say that Two Hands foregoes beauty – it begins with a lullaby and, after the purging of Shoulders and Not, drifts off on the fingerpicked guitar strings of Buck Meek on Wolf. But these are tactile pieces of music. As on U.F.O.F., James Krivchenia’s drumming is quietly innovative, on most tracks a constant anchor, similar to the role played by Bryan Devendorf in The National. Max Oleartchik’s bass is hearty when called upon, and is given a few of the best moments. On Not (again, but it is one of the best songs of the year), the other players fade away leaving only his bass, which sounds satisfyingly blown out.
Most surprising about Two Hands is its generosity in allowing the listener to take stock of themselves. This is most prominently done in the production, or lack thereof. By playing up its uncomfortably close, live, one-take nature, it places you right there in the room. Several songs are either preceded or followed by a few seconds of dead air, which can feel like an eternity. Often it is silence, or half-filled with the faint shuffling of feet, maybe a soft count in, or an inaudible word between bandmates. It has the effect of making the listener acutely aware of their surroundings. Perhaps there was the low rumbling of a car engine driving past, or maybe the album had become at one with what was happening in the outside world, difficult to discern which was reality.
Watching that Late Show performance, you wonder how many viewers had their minds blown. Even those who were already familiar with Big Thief did. In a time when that might have been one of the only ways to hear a buzzed about band, it may have changed the course of someone’s relationship with music. It was so memorable, maybe it still did. Big Thief feel like a band with that power now. That night, as she usually is, Lenker was fiery and enigmatic. But as the band approach the end of the final chorus, there is a stolen smile among the glances. Does she know they have that power now too?
Two Hands was released on 11 Oct via 4AD
Big Thief play Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, 2 Mar